“I’ve always had stories in my head”
With 230 novels to her name and still counting, prolific romantic suspense author Nora Roberts is well-versed on men, misogyny and make-believe
She has 230 books to her name and is still counting. Romance novelist Nora Roberts reflects on her prolific career and why she’ll always stand up for her work.
On a winter’s afternoon in 1979, Nora Roberts discovered her life’s purpose. A blizzard had been raging outside for days, and a then 29-year-old Roberts, along with her two young sons, was desperately trying to ward off cabin fever. A metre of snow at the front door kept them confined to the house, and she was quickly “going mad”. But once the boys had fallen asleep, Roberts picked up a pen, and began to write.
“I’d always had stories in my head; I thought everyone did,” she tells Stellar. “So I decided I’d just take one of them out and start writing it down to entertain myself, to keep sane. And I fell in love. Why hadn’t I been doing this all along?”
Forty years and 230 books later, at 68, Roberts is arguably the most prolific romantic suspense writer ever. In 2007,
Time magazine included her as one of only two authors in its 100 Most Influential People In The World issue, and Roberts’s novels have collectively spent a total of 1133 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list – that’s equivalent to 20 consecutive years of weekly bestsellers. Under the pseudonym J.D. Robb, Roberts has also written a series of futuristic crime novels (the 50th will be released next year).
In spite of her immense success ( Forbes estimates Roberts is worth $US390 million), she lives a low-key life in Maryland, USA, and relishes the privacy a small town allows her. One of her sons lives around the corner, and in a meet-cute worthy of a novel, Roberts met her second husband, carpenter Bruce Wilder, when she hired him to build some bookshelves. “He did a good job, so I kept him,” she says, laughing.
Roberts never went to university, never took a single writing workshop, and instead credits her father for fostering her love of narratives. Once she had her own children, Roberts found herself devouring Harlequin romances. But later, when she tried her hand at what she terms “Romance with a capital R,” she made sure to write strong, feisty heroines who could take care of themselves.
“I’ve always tried to show my sons that women are not to be pigeonholed,” she says. “In a lot of the category books that I was reading, the heroines were sort of easily dominated. That didn’t sit well with me, and it wasn’t the kind of heroine I wanted to write.”
While Roberts later shed the capital R title, opting instead for “romantic suspense”, she’s had plenty of practice ignoring the naysayers and literary critics who shun romance. “I stopped fighting that battle a long time ago,” she sighs. “You can’t change [the misogyny], you just have to stand up for your work. Writers who write without gender – there’s a reason. I hear from women who say, ‘My husband won’t read anything written by a woman, so I handed him a J.D. Robb book, and he thought it was by a guy. After he’d read five of them I told him it was really Nora Roberts.’”
Her success hasn’t been without its struggles. In 1998, Roberts won a lawsuit against writer Janet Dailey, who had plagiarised several of her novels (the settlement was donated to literacy groups).
Earlier this year, Roberts filed her second lawsuit for plagiarism, this time against Brazilian writer Cristiane Serruya. “It’s a punch in the gut,” says Roberts. “They’ve decided, ‘Well, I’ll take that and call it mine,’ but you can’t come in my home and steal my stuff, and you can’t come into my books and steal my words. It’s the same thing, it’s still theft. It’s a very emotional thing because those words came out of you, you’ve laboured over them.”
Does she ever worry that her seemingly endless supply of story ideas will dry up? Roberts laughs off the suggestion. “Oh, ideas are the easy part! I can’t imagine what I would do with the people in my head if I didn’t sit down and try to tell their stories.”
Under Currents by Nora Roberts (Hachette, $29.99) is out now.
TRUE ROMANCE (from top) Author Nora Roberts at a book signing in her hometown of Maryland in the US in 2012; with her husband Bruce Wilder at a gala dinner earlier this year.